Theories of the Bulge

Media | United States | Building/Consensus
Whatever happened to the bulge on President Bush’s back, visible in the Presidential debates? It was referred to by the usual family of -Gates: AudioGate, PrompterGate, and, my favorite, “The Battle of the Bulge.” I had followed the story develop first-hand on various blogs, and saw how it played out in the national media, fading out by election day. It’s returned to the news, briefly, courtesy of a Dan Kennedy column in the Phoenix. I thought I’d take another look at the story, and try to answer the question as to why the Internet blogs, for all their supposed powers, could not shake the truth out. This is part of a series on “Truth Exposure: Getting the Facts to Light.”

Revisiting Bush’s Bulge

Let’s revisit the theories; there were a few of them. 1) President Bush said it was “poorly-tailored”; 2) it was bulletproof vest– said an anonymous Secret Service agent to The Hill post election, but the White House denied it; 3) it was part of an radio transmitting system to provide answers to Bush during the debate; 4) it was a wearable defibrillator. Here’s a collection of all the pictures, assembled by Chris Shaw, one of the bloggers who tracked the story.

The radio transmitter came first, and gained the most traction; people readily accepted the narrative that the President wasn’t mentally prepared for the debate. That’s the sole “alternative” theory that’s remembered by most of my friends. While that theory was making the late-night comedy rounds, the second alternative theory developed on the Internet, about the defibrillator. This was built around a separate narrative that some Democrats wanted to push: President Bush, who had lived a largely stress-free life up until he ran for the office, was now under the enormous strain of fighting the war in Iraq and combatting worldwide terrorism. “It’s hard work,” he grieved eleven times during the first debate. Ultimately on the blogs, both narratives were accepted, since either spoke to a pattern of deception from the Bush administration.

Dan Kennedy, media critic of Boston Phoenix, resuscitated the ailing heart theory in his column this week, by calling attention to an article posted on IndyMedia in late December by Clayton Hallmark, an electrical engineer from Cleveland. Kennedy called it “the most fully developed version of the defibrillator story that I’ve found.”

Here’s how Kennedy framed the issue: “is there value to certain types of non-nutty Internet speculation that the mainstream media, for the most part, refuse to touch?” Hallmark, no less an expert on the media than he is on medicine, chimed in: “As far as the MSM [the mainstream media], they don’t like to be told their agenda. That’s part of the problem.”

This must be more tiresome for the editors to read than it is for me. The rage against the media meme has become a knee-jerk reaction by every armchair critic, and now it comes from Dan Kennedy. He’s channeling more cynicism than media analysis. The better question here is how come the attention didn’t lead to an unearthing of the truth? I have some theories below, since I followed the story as it happened three months ago. But I also made sure to draw up a timeline to check all the news-breaks as they happened. I even learned now something I had not picked up at the time– and something which escapes Kennedy’s and Hallmark’s analysis as well– that Vice President Cheney had worn a portable defibrillator before getting one implanted in his heart in July 2001.

In a separate piece, I looked at whether the blogosphere was critical at all in helping unearth political scandals. Yes and no– depending on how one defines the blogosphere. Essentially, whether the truth gets out is how much the people around it are willing to give it out. Trent Lott’s allies abandoned him; the staff of 60 Minutes knew that they didn’t have a case, and that the market would judge them based on their fidelity to the truth. In the case of Bush’s bulge, the personal privilige of the President took priority.

What happened?

I offer three explanations as to why this story had suffered in getting out. First, the blog format did not facilitate sufficiently constructive conversations to promote investigate strategies. Secondly, a strategy that any amateur could have tried, but didn’t, was to simply offer some positive and negative comparisons of the theories by photographing men in jackets. Lastly, the initial alternative hypothesis was immediately referred to as “weird” and as a “conspiracy theory”– by pundits who were nominally critics of the Bush administration! Thus the “mainstream media” looked at it as a good laugh, never getting the serious prompting to frame any questions.

1. The blog format didn’t work.

Why did it take until December to produce “the most full developed version” of the theory? Hallmark added nothing new (and no medical expertise, even) to it, other than the report of Bush’s overdue physical, on December 11th. By contrast, the leading documentary source for the 60 Minutes Killian memos forgery, was electronic typesetting expert Joseph Newcomer, who wrote 10,000 words from day 3 to day 10 after the first doubts were raised.

The first of the three main blogs to carry the torch was: Joseph Cannon’s Cannonfire. Cannon had been blogging since March, and was the first to post an observation of the mysterious bulge. He kept at the story for weeks, posting dozens of scoops.

On October 4th, the IsBushWired blog went online, created by an anoymous “journalist with twenty+ years of experience in print, radio and television” who independently observed “a boxy shape under the president’s jacket” in the first debate. This had a nice elegant format, and was able to draw in a wider cast of characters. A post on October 16th drew 48 comments. All were completely anonymous, except for six signed by people with accounts on And of those 6, only one of them used their real name — that would be me. I can understand if people don’t. But I figure if I use my real name, I’m going to be very careful about what I say. In one post, I gave a suggestion for how Tim Russert should have better phrased his question to Mehlman. And then I turned my guns on the blogs:

“But I’m also going to blame the blogs on not forming these questions clearly enough. The format of blogs requires readers to scroll down through the whole page to to try and learn everything. People covering this story– bloggers or not– should very clear state at the top of their websites what is known and what they wish to ask.”

Chris Shaw, posting as “icone,” the manager of the BushWired blog, responded that he agreed completely, and that furthermore, he said “We are currently compiling all of our links of ‘evidence’ into a new, easy to read, post of compiled info from the past 2 weeks.”

But he never got around to that. The BushWired blog, as it last stood, was 20,000 words and about 70 screenfuls of to read. There are summaries on the site to “catch up new visitors”– but many of them, once a day. The “weblog” format, “a cross between writing a column and talk radio” (as Andrew Sullivan remarked) remains does not do an effective job of summarizing what has been learned. (see Why are they not called Weblongs?. Some good ideas were pulled from the comments, but not all. If only the format had been designed in such a way to unearth different parts of the theory.

2. The documentary evidence has never been plainly illustrated.

One of the key parts of the 60 Minutes memos, Newcomer was able to show both how the Killian memos looked different from what they were supposed to look like– authenticated Texas Air National Gaurd memos– and similar to what a forgery would like– in Microsoft Word. This has still not been done for the bulge story.

The New York Times sent out a photographer, not to test out the theory, but instead to see whether bulges were visible under jackets of people on the streets of New York (October 16th Op-Art entitled “Is That a Transmitter in Your Jacket?”). Sure enough, some were found, but the rhetorical value of this was completely useless. Ironically, Brent Bozell’s TimesWatch cited this as evidence that the Times was acting as a left-wing conspiracy-monger. This was the Times‘s final word on the matter until after the election, and it was so meaningless to the main theory that only one minor blogger linked to it.

Someone needed to take pictures of several men with similar build of the President (6-feet tall, 190 lbs, 44L jacket), with and without various “vests” underneath– bulletproof vests, radio transmitters, the LifeCor LifeVest. I made this very suggestion on, in a another post to isBushWired— and one anonymous person agreed. (Similarly, see this blog post) Only The Hill, a weekly print publication “for and about the U.S. Congress” took the time to visit the President’s tailor to get a picture of a the back of a jacket without anything funny underneath. Also a newspaper– in Scotland!– did try this using some conventional spywear. Granted, a LifeVest is probably a little harder to come by then a bulletproof vest or a radio transmitter, but it could be mocked up. There are in fact marketing images from the LifeCor. There is one of a man in a blazer, taken not from the back but from the front. And there’s a rather large device which hangs on the man’s belt, too large to be obstructed by the jacket.

Of course, the theory still needed some work. How long does a person wear a defibrillator? Where else would it be seen? Is there only one manufacturer? Does anyone have pictures of Cheny when he wore a portable defibrillator?

3. The story was largely perceived as a “conspiracy theory”

When Dan Kennedy says that this is “non-nutty Internet speculation,” he’s implying that much of the “Internet speculation” is the opposite– nutty. The term “tinfoil hats” was seemingly brought back into vogue as a cute symbol for the apparent conspiracy theorists: Even Salon wrote: “But let’s adjust our tinfoil hats and plunge deeper.” (why not use a metaphor like “sharpen our pencils”? or anything?) The “tinfoil hats” was especially disastrous, as the term derives from conspiracy theorists of a generation ago who felt that the use of such hats would effectively block mind-reading radio waves coming from the government or outer space.

Why was this ever associated with a “conspiracy theory” to begin, when the 60 Minutes memo was not? Conspiracy theories, by definition, are when people keep quiet about a “illegal, wrongful, or subversive act.” Yet conspiracy theories are now regularly associated with the secrecy of government, rather than that of corporate/media. Perhaps it’s because government is by statute more open than private companies– even publicly traded media companies– so corporate secrecy is perceived as the norm. Of course, it’s a disgrace for democracy when any criticism of the government is dismissed as “conspiracy theories” (as Health and Human Services spokesman William Pierce did in May).

Yet, if we follow the assumption that Bush was wearing a health aid, that’s hardly a conspiracy: there’s nothing illegal, wrongful, or subversive about that. To keep it a secret is part of the job of Secret Service agents and Presidential doctors. That said, considering the research that Robert Dallek has unearthed about President Kennedy’s health, it may a privilige which we the public no longer wish to afford our leaders.

The health theory should have been known by the 17th, when DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe was asked to comment. He could have said: “The White House may know the truth about this, but if it’s a matter of national security, I understand their discretion here,” and by doing so, he would have both escaped from the issue while leaving an open for speculators. Instead he just knew the radio theory and defused. “I honestly don’t think the man is going to risk his presidency taking a transmitter into the debate.”

But there were other dismissers, and it wasn’t only just the “mainstream media” which dismissed it. As I’ve argued, the national media take their cue not from the blogosphere but from the “pundisphere” of pundits. And the pundits weren’t biting. Josh Marshall mentioned on the 10th that the Times had picked up the story. He mentioned it again on the 29th, as did Andrew Sullivan, after third Salon story (this was four days before election day).

One of the early minor-pundits who helped amplify the story was Kevin Drum, who wrote about it on his “Political Animal” blog for the Washington Monthly on October 4th. His citation was a bit half-hearted: “The internet is your go-to medium for news of the weird, and this weekend’s clear winner in the world of weird speculation was the buzz about George Bush’s earpiece”. He drolly concluded: “But I’m sure there’s a good explanation that doesn’t involve tinfoil hats.” (Quick, don’t think of an elephant.)

The next day, Slate’s Chris Suellentrop, declared in a Slate campaign dispatch: “Bush’s Bulge: The conspiracy theorists are surely wrong”– without identifying any such theorists (“some of whom were peddling the same theory four years ago”) or even which specific theory they would be wrong about. His evidence? That Bush would have done demonstrably better had he gotten instructions.

Joseph Cannon, the blogger doing most of the coverage of the story, took time out to speculate in a post Good conspiracies, bad conspiracies, asserting that “The theories proffered by right-wingers have a much worse track record than do the theories proposed by left-wingers.” This, I pointed out to him, was entirely irrelevant, and persisted the association with conspiracy theories.

Crossfire’s “from the left” Paul Begala also dismissed it as a “conspiracy theory” when asked about it on the program. The anonymous IsBushWired journalist ripped into him:

Finally, here’s the other misuse of rhetoric and reason employed by fake journalists who care little about the truth of this or any question: Rather than confront reality or ask questions, to do their jobs, in short, they use meaningless labels intended to slur the source: “bloggers” “internet conspiracy theorists.” In the inversion of reality that we’ve come to expect in public life these days (except for life savers like Jon Stewart!) these fake journalists are themselves conspiracy theorists and fantasists: in the face of all evidence and experience, they cling to the fiction that the White House tells the truth.

There’s a point in there, but it’s lost in some additional name calling. Jon Stewart really is a “fake journalist” (a saver of life, I am unsure), though, ironically, he had no idea about it, leaving Begala to field the question. “Conspiracy theory.”

Here’s a better phrase: “alternative theory.”


Despite being derided a “conspiracy theory” and “weird,” the story did not stay quiet for long. But whether the truth gets out largely depends on how willing the people guarding it are willing to relinquish it. Chris Shaw, who ran one of the blogs devoted to the story, wrote me after I contacted him:

In my opinion the Bulge “phenomenon” (and all its facets) was born and bred in the “blogosphere”… I also think the “blogosphere” was responsible for keeping the story alive so long. Every time the Bulge seemed to die, some great new “rumor” would get circulated and the Bulge would end up in the press again…. I don’t know why we never got the truth about the Bulge. I actually bothers me quite a bit. After all the hoopla, as I said on my site, the press never really asked any SERIOUS questions about the story.

You can’t get more serious than this. ABC’s Charlie Gibson, one of America’s top television news personalities, asked the very question of the President in a televised interview a week before the election: “What the hell was that on your back, in the first debate?” Bush started on a joke, but Gibson cut him off, demanding that he be serious. Bush offered that it was “a poorly tailored shirt.” Gibson prompted him further: “There was no sound system, there was no electrical signal? There was –” And Bush followed the tack and dismissed, feigning ignorance about how a audio prompter would work. Who knows whether Gibson was about to say “There was — no medical device”? This hypothesis was newer, but still twelve days old. Yet no one in the “pundisphere” had brought it up the media chain. The blogosphere just didn’t work the magic.

Suppose it does turn out to be a defibrillator. I won’t crow about it– I still don’t have any good evidence that such a device would make that shape under a jacket, and that no other object can. The blogs still have their chance to do that.

see the timeline…

Originally posted January 9.
Updated January 11th: Made some major changes to the Introduction and Conclusion– this after 77 viewings of the piece, many thanks to Dan Kennedy’s More on the Bulge blurb.
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  • Response summary: 5 comments, 1 Viewpoints
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    best yet [email protected] Jan 13 ’05 9:02PM
    Don’t Give Up So Easily C_L_Hallmark Jan 14 ’05 7:44PM
    . will await your results Jon Garfunkel Jan 17 ’05 9:29PM
    Jon, I have rewritten this. C_L_Hallmark Jan 20 ’05 8:30PM
    Add another theory to the mix: an ALD for CAPD thomasn528 Feb 10 ’05 11:38PM
    . another theory, but for the fact that… Jon Garfunkel Feb 14 ’05 6:54AM